LOS ANGELES – Chris Boucher hadn’t called his mom Mary yet. He didn’t want to do it from the hubbub of the cramped visitors dressing room at Staples Center, even though she’d already called her 26-year-old son a couple of times.
He was going to wait until he got into the dark quiet of the Toronto Raptors‘ team bus.
“That way she can enjoy it herself a little longer,” said the role player.
You can imagine the conversation.
“Hello, mom? I just helped kick ass against the best basketball players in the world on the floor of the NBA’s most famous arena!”
Good job, son.
The Toronto Raptors will win their share of games this season, if not necessarily an NBA championship again. But they won’t have many wins more gratifying than the 113-104 decision they earned against the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and their old teammate Danny Green on Sunday.
The Raptors were missing Kyle Lowry (thumb fracture), Serge Ibaka (ankle sprain), Patrick McCaw (knee) and Kawhi Leonard (Clippers, who the Raptors play in Los Angeles Monday night).
Best case? A bunch of guys who have been dying for an opportunity run around, play hard, do some good things and work their way into Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s tight rotation, that has been hovering at seven or eight players all season.
That was what Nurse hoping for before the ball went up.
The official Las Vegas line had the Lakers as 10.5-point favourites, which seemed a little unambitious given that the Raptors had one NBA point guard, one NBA center and were counting on significant contributions from – at minimum three undrafted free agents – not including Fred VanVleet.
But after rolling to regular seasons of 59 and 58 wins the last two years in part due to outstanding roster depth, it seemed to be acceptable to wonder about how this all could conceivably work.
“Yeah. I am curious,” said Nurse before the game. “We all didn’t think we were very deep at all a couple of weeks ago.
“I’ve been saying we got eight guys I really like and three of those are missing now,” he said.
“Pretty significant injuries, three guys out of that eight. I’m going to have to start liking a few more guys pretty quickly. So this is their chance, this is their chance to get out there and play.
“There is some fun to it. I’ve been in this situation as a coach 100 times where guys have gotten called up on me when I was coaching in the minors and it’s fun to see a new guy with a new opportunity. You never know who is going to grab that opportunity and run with it.”
Safe to say they ran with it. Players who have been dying for moments to shine grabbed the spotlight and thrived in the light.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the fourth quarter involved little-used Boucher stopping the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma at the rim and the Raptors going the other way to watch rookie Terence Davis – off a beautiful pass from fossilized Rondae-Hollis Jefferson who finally got some minutes – step into a corner three that put the Raptors up 12 with just under four minutes to play.
Incredible. More incredible? They won. They didn’t fold. Even after the Lakers launched a quick 8-0 run to cut the Raptors’ lead to four with two minutes to play, Toronto figured it out. A pair of Pascal Siakam fastbreaks put the Raptors back up eight with 1:18 left and the Lakers crowd began leaving so they could go sit in traffic.
Improbably the Raptors – shorthanded and all – improved to 2-0 on their road trip and 7-2 on the season with a win no one could have seen coming.
There were some notable top-line performances: VanVleet was excellent, with 23 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and two steals in 39 minutes. Siakam matched the Lakers’ superstars blow for blow, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots, and playing big chunks of the game as the Raptors backup point guard.
But there were some incredible performances from some unlikely places, Boucher’s perhaps most of all.
In 36 NBA games spread across three seasons, the lanky Montrealer had played as many as 24 minutes only once, during a throwaway game on the last night of the regular season last year.
Otherwise? He’s never played more than 12 minutes, his promise flashing in every other level of quasi NBA competition – Summer League, G-League, exhibition play, intrasquad, you name it.
But Boucher found himself soaking it all in on the floor of Staples Center in the pregame warmups, knowing he was going to get a chance to show he belonged.
“It’s always cool to be playing but that’s an atmosphere, Staples Centre, I never played minutes like that,” he said.
“And for me to have my first game and it be at the Staples Center and play against LeBron and all that. It’s an amazing feeling, definitely a dream come true for me … I’m young in this league, so for me to like play against these guys it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come all the time, but you actually see why they’ve been there so long and why these guys are the best players in the world, so it definitely feels great.”
Boucher announced himself with a bang.
On one sequence he spiked Lakers guard Alex Caruso’s shot like it was a volleyball, sprinted the floor and soared in from nowhere to finish the alley-oop. It was spectacular.
The Raptors started miserably but had trailed only 30-29 at the end of the first quarter. Boucher’s block and alley-oop was part of a surge that briefly gave them a second-quarter lead before trailing 60-52 at halftime.
But the Raptors’ role players wouldn’t play their role. They stepped above and beyond. Siakam and VanVleet kept the Raptors in it as they combined for 17 points in the third quarter as the Raptors were headed into the fourth quarter tied.
Then things got a little nuts. Relying on a unit that featured Boucher, little-used Hollis-Jefferson and the rookie Davis, supported by Siakam, the Raptors put the boots to the Lakers’ stars.
Boucher blocked James and Davis within a span of 20 seconds. He scored nine of his 15 points in the first four minutes of the pivotal fourth quarter as the Raptors opened up an improbable 11-point lead.
Boucher was rolling, and it felt fantastic.
“I’m probably going to remember this forever,” said Boucher, who went undrafted out of college after suffering a major knee injury. “I always wanted to play against these guys and it was kind of surprising that it happened today but it was a great feeling for sure.
He didn’t feel pressure, but he wasn’t relaxed either. He knew he had to find a way to make something happen.
“I think you just hope for the best, that’s what I’ve been doing,” he said about waiting his turn. “I’ve been here for over a year, so it’s not new to me, but on the bench you have observe and see what you can do when you get in and when you get opportunities like that, you’ve got to take it.”
He wasn’t the only one, Hollis-Jefferson is a fifth-year player who didn’t expect to find himself out of Nurse’s rotation, but injuries and circumstance made it so.
Waiting it out hasn’t been easy. Coming on to guard James in the fourth quarter – as Hollis-Jefferson did effectively while also chipping in 10 points, three rebounds and that crucial assist to Davis – was a breeze, relatively.
“It was tough. I’m human, I have feelings and I’m a competitor. I’m emotional, I wear my heart on my sleeve so it was definitely tough,” he said of being on the outside looking in and playing only four minutes all season.
“People will tell you that. I’m not one to shy away from it, but for the most part, I always thought about my son. Just what he would think and how he would feel if he were older. So that kind of helped me get over it. And then just talking to guys. There are some great guys in here who understand the grind and the situation. When you have good people around it makes life a little bit easier.”
It was the kind of win that lifts an entire roster. The guys who haven’t played feel vindicated and valued. The guys that have been carrying the load feel good for them.
But it’s the people supporting them along the way that perhaps feel best of all.
The most important person in Boucher’s life is his mom, who worked hard to raise him alone in some very difficult circumstances in Montreal. After three NBA seasons waiting to call her with some good news, he finally had lots to talk about.